THE GREEK ISLAND TAVERNA TAKES OVER THE OAKLAND HILLS AS ABBA’S INFECTIOUS SCORE “TAKE(S) A CHANCE ON ME” AND IS A SURE SUMMER HIT FOR SOLD OUT AUDIENCES WHO CAN’T STOP DANCING AND SINGING IN THE AISLES
“I took a spontaneous holiday” this weekend to an Aegean sea island as I accompanied bride Sophie at the Greek taverna Villa in search for her real dad. And after 15 years of the story being set on a Broadway stage and a worldwide tour, the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!,” (based on the disco-era hits of the Swedish band ABBA) finally rocks on a bay area regional stage. Woodminster’s Summer Musicals rocks the Bay Area regional theater premiere of Mamma Mia!, now on stage through July 16th at their outdoor theatre.
Director Joel Schlader says, “Mamma Mia is a really lighthearted show, and it’s going to be a very fun way to start the season. The music is so upbeat and infectious that even people who aren’t ABBA fans and don’t have a fond memory of disco music will dance their way out of the theater. And the story is very funny and appealing, and even has something to say about generations in families, especially mothers and daughters. Everybody is going to have a great time at Mamma Mia!”
After 5,773 world wide performances, “Mamma Mia” received two Drama Desk Awards and five Tony Award Nominations. The popular 2008 movie version starring Meryl Streep also introduced a new generation to the music of ABBA. “Mamma Mia!” is now available to regional theaters, so it is only right and proper that Woodminster Summer Theatre has first dibs in the Bay Area for the ABBA musical hit. Woodminster deserves cheers for their continued creative stagings of contemporary hits and they maintain their reputation with this high-energy production of “Mamma Mia!.”
Opening weekend, the park sold out for the first time in many years! Head of PR Kathy Kahn says “ (opening) night was a unique experience for everyone. We had twice as many people as we were expecting, and many, many more walk-ups than we've ever had for an opening night. A record opening night, as it happens, all around. (Saturday night) we sold 2000 tickets, the most in my 15 years here, and were really aren't infrastructurally accustomed to that - It's great to have such a popular show."
This Woodminster production has people dancing in the aisles of opening night thanks to the direction of the inspiring Joel Schlader and choreographer Jody Jaron. Scripted by Catherine Johnson (music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus), “Mamma Mia!” gets right to the point as fatherless bride-to-be, Sophie, discovers her mother’s diary describing intimate dates with three men when she was 17. Sophie, is confident that she’ll bond with the three Dads, so she invites them all to her wedding. With icon ABBA hits like “Dancing Queen,” and “SOS,” the cast of 30 does not disappoint at this wedding bash.
Although the title of the musical is taken from the group's 1975 chart-topper "Mamma Mia," the plot is fictional, not biographical. ABBA was pop music royalty from 1972 to 1982, with their hook-driven, danceable tunes and outlandish, garish stage costumes. But as their star had waned, an English producer sold them on a new idea and hired playwright Catherine Johnson to write a book that linked the group's playlist. The show opened in London in 1999, and the rest is "Money, Money, Money" history.
The Oakland hills is the perfect spot for this wedding celebration and Juke box hit. I must first praise the main star of this two hour romp, and surprisingly it is not a specific person in the cast. The sold out audience steals this show. The crowd becomes an important character at this 80’s pop wedding. They sing and dance in the aisles, and are even on their feet for most of the second act. The women and moms sitting near me sang, whopped, danced and swung for all of the ABBA hits. I could not help but enjoy how much the audience accompanied this silly musical.
“Thank You For The Music” the ABBA staple is performed by the adult cast and sets the tone of the first act. The three dads, Sam played by the lively Robert Moorhead, the terrific Geoffrey Blaisdell plays Harry, and the dapper Bill played by the riveting Dwight Mahabir, are three first rate pro’s that add the shine to the cast.
The bubbling Amanda Farbstein, as young Sophie, projects a gullible innocence that tricks her into believing she can manage without complications. Farbstein maintains a fresh earnestness for her character, and shows the most commitment. The polished Joy Sherratt, from the Pacific Coast Repertory, plays her mom the clever Donna. As she delivers the climactic “Winner Takes It All,” her expertise comes through in convincing us of her bewilderment that these men shown up for Sophie’s wedding.
Donna's two best friends have also come to the island for the wedding. They are the forever single and fun-loving writer Rosie, played by the grand Krista Wigle, and the wealthy and pampered three-time divorcé Tanya, played by the superb Leandra Ramm. The three longtime friends were once an '80s singing group called "Donna and the Dynamos." Ramm and Wigle have some of the best lines in the show. Unfortunately, they don't land them all because they are both over the top in the first act and their timing is sometimes mechanical; however the actresses rally and excel in the pumped up second act.
The women bond in Donna's time of turmoil as Sophie's paternity is pondered. Their many songs include some classics like “Chiquitita” and the famous “Dancing Queen.” Jaron’s choreography for the three women is predictable 80’s sizzle and a lot of bouncing on the bed glee fun. Dance captain Natalie Fong worked the larger dance numbers with the company “The Name of Game” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” Overall, the dancing was not the highlight of this production, it was sloppier compared to Jaron’s past Woodminster productions, But the energy on stage does not stop the charm of this show and the crowd loves it.
Company members Brandon Masterson and Lina Fox, photo by Stephan Woo
The daddy candidates are stereotypical “is she my daughter?” confused friends. In the song “Lay All Your Love On Me” the men and groom, Sky played by the marvelous Romar de Claro, have fun with their pitch perfect voices. De Claro is a pro and matches with Farbstein works well as they consider his bachelor party and his final romp with his guy pals. Without overdoing it, Geoffrey Blaisdell plays Harry as “Not Donna’s Type”. Dwight Mahabir as Bill shares a grandfatherly tone while Robert Moorhead as Sam, occupies the category of odds-on favorite. After the title song with Donna, all are keen on the honor of giving Sophie away, while De Claro as the groom wonders why Sophie’s fuss isn’t over him. At the end of a frenzied weekend a wedding takes place, but perhaps not quite the one that was planned.
Set designer Maggie Lamb brings the taverna a glow with a Mediterranean vibe. The lighting by Jon Gourdine of course includes, the classic 80’s glitter ball that fills the entire outdoor venue, while music director Daniel Thomas on stage band keeps the disco beat throbbing to the pulse of past and present. Lamb’s stage design brings the 30 member cast up to the first row of the sold out house. She has covered the orchestra pit and Jaron’s predictable marching choreography comes to the rails down stage. This energizes the pleased sold out crowd audience and keeps them clapping and singing with the cast. The clever props by Billy Sander include soap containers as microphones for the fab “Donna and the Dynamos” and plenty of boas’, beach balls, and champagne glasses.
The crowd pleasing dance number by Sky's buddies are dressed in wetsuits and flippers by the talented costume designer Donna Page . Her costumes are all eye catching, 80's glam from Sophie's simply elegant wedding gown, to the over-the-top spandex costumes for Donna and the Dynamos, that would fit right in on the pages of a Kiss look alike contest.
Stephan Woo and
Carole Davis’s sound design includes hand mics for the Dynamos and some well placed mics to pick up the huge chorus on stage. The dances at times match the music, you'd think Thomas and his eight member band had been in the room when Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus created the ABBA songbook.
The company is lively and pumps the 80’s flavor for both acts including the featured players and Woodminster regulars Rod Voltaire Edora as Eddie, Bobby Singer as Father Alexandrios, Todd Schlader, and the full throttle Scott Taylor-Cole as Pepper. “Honey, Honey” featuring Sophie’s best gals Ali and Lisa are equally played by the adorable Giana Gambardella and Kelty Morash. The ensemble is capable and includes the sizzling Sean McGrory, Corrie Farbstein, Christine Burke, Zach Moorhead, David Morris, Lauren Bond, Larry Hawelu, Linnea Fox, Carly Tilson-Lumetta, Katherine Dela Cruz, Ji-Yun Kim, Mark McMillan, Julia Ludwig, Brandon Masterson and many others.
Woodminster has a hit! and will continue to fill their 2000 seat outdoor venue, potentially causing them to turn away latecomers at the gate. Director Schlader has strengthened this jukebox music repository of two dozen ABBA songs into a musical that can almost stand on its own. The hits are all there, from the title song to “Waterloo,” “Thank You for the Music,” “Money, Money, Money,” “SOS,” “Take a Chance on Me” and “Dancing Queen,” that reprise to close the show.
The curtain call ABBA mix drew a hysterical reaction from the opening night crowd. The audience dancing in the aisles during the finale has become a ritual, the audience is the star of this show. This company will not disappoint, the outdoor venue is a disco standing ovation party. Mamma Mia! opening the 51st season of the Woodminster Summer Musicals they will continue with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific August 4-13 and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast September 1-10.
PRESENTS ITS 51 st SEASON
The Bay Area Premiere of
Music by ABBA
Music and Lyrics by
and Bjorn Ulvanus
Book by Cathrine Johnson
Directed by Joel Schlader, Music Direction
by Daniel Thomas
by Jody Jaron
Must Close July 16, 2017
Woodminster Amphitheater, 3300 Joaquin Miller Road
2 hours 30 min with one intermission
Tickets: $26 to $59 with each child free with a paying adult
Information: www.woodminster.com or 510-531-9597
Photos Courtesy of Kathy Kahn / Stephan Woo
Joy Sherratt, Geoffrey Blaisdell, Robert Moorhead, Bryan Munar, Randy Burke, Christine Burke,Linnea Fox, Bobby Singer, Megan Bartlett, Ji-Yun Kim, Rod Voltaire, Natalie Jane, Julia Ludwig, Anne-Marie Pietersma, Leandra Ramm, Mark McMillan,Amanda Rose Farbstein, Zach Moorhead, Romar De Claro, David Morris, Lauren Bond, Gabrielle Meacham, Krista Wigle, Johann Santos, Dwight Mahabir, Todd Schlader, Kelty Miller, Giana Gambardella, Brandon Masterson, Carly Tilson-Lumetta, Katherine Dela Cruz, Eleanor Roeder,Scott Taylor Cole, Larry Hawelu, Sean Mcgrory Corrie Farbstein. Natalie Fong, Ginnie Menezes.